|Sharing an after-school ice cream . Photo: JH.|
|Last Wednesday, I learned, along with everyone who reads the New York Times obituaries, that Randy Paar had died the previous Sunday at age 63. According to the Times, she had fallen onto the tracks at Grand Central Station last Wednesday and was taken to Bellevue where she died four days later. They weren't sure what happened, but it was thought that she might have had a seizure or a stroke. The news came as a shock. The manner of her death, painful, alone, left me in grief for her.
We had been friends in the 1970s when I lived in Connecticut and her parents, Jack and Miriam Paar lived in New Canaan, the town next door. It was a short friendship, time-wise, but a very important one for me. It was connection that had a strong impact on my life as a professional. Randy most likely never thought of it that way, but she would know what I meant if she heard it.
When I returned to New York fourteen years later, Randy made a brief effort to revive our friendship but I was lax and distracted, and in my characteristic self-absorption about my own career, didn’t follow up on her friendly initiative. My failure very likely left her with the feeling that I didn't care, because Randy was very sensitive and could easily feel left out. And from all the evidence (or lack of), you could assume I’d done exactly that. And I have done this at other times to people in my life. It’s not intentional or even conscious, although I am not entirely unaware of it. To me it’s more like "wanting to be alone,” but most people might chalk it up to what they regard as my obsessive ambition where the focus is always on the objective or the self. I’ve had it all my life.
Randy was shy but naturally very sociable. She made friends easily, both in school and through the families who were friendly with her parents. Her closest friend when we met was Senator Eugene McCarthy’s daughter Mary, who died just a few years later, of cancer; and one of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s daughters. Randy was shy around males who were attractive to her, although she was self-possessed and could cover it well with her sophistication and sense of humor. She could be timorous until she could be sure that the person was also attracted, and naturally disappointed when they weren’t. She also had a strong sense of irony. However, her place in life at the time was always as it was when we knew each other, and throughout her life, as Jack Paar’s daughter.
|Ethel Kennedy and Randy Parr in 2009.|
|However, growing up, Papa — as she called him — remained her center, and he took it for granted that he was. He was the star, even in the house, although to know them privately was to know JackandMiriam, almost as one. Miriam cared for him and served him well — and always would for all of the sixty years of their marriage. She laughed heartily at all of his jokes, even the old ones. She became an excellent cook and prepared his meals the way he liked them — and always on time — a very crucial detail. As a hostess she was warm and gracious to all their guests. She looked after the family finances carefully and shrewdly so that he never had to be concerned. She had household help in the daytime but nevertheless always did all the shopping and all the cooking, including for their frequent dinner parties and luncheons for six or ten.
When Jack was working, Miriam provided the quiet isolation he needed. But he was the center, and so little Randy growing up with this very self-reliant mother soon learned she had another to attend to. Her father adored her, and was very proud of her intellectual abilities, which she probably inherited from him although he was entirely self-educated (after dropping out of high school in his mid-teens). Early on in her life, she was often his "cohort" in his adventures. He talked about her frequently on his “Tonight Show,” and even had her as a guest, despite her natural reluctance to appear. She was part of the intimacy that he demonstrated that amused and impressed America, giving them a greater feeling that they “knew” him.
Jack Paar started out when he was in his late teens in the late 1930s working in radio as an announcer, and later as a disc jockey. Radio was about “the voice.” Men worked hard to develop a voice that people liked listening to. (So did Ronald Reagan.) Late in his life Jack liked to recall, with self-amusement that “voice,” putting his hand to ear as if taking a pose, and repeating in his mellow stentorian baritone, “this is WGAR ... in Cleveland ..."
During the Second World War, he made a name for himself entertaining the troops in the South Pacific. When he married Miriam Wagner, he'd already been married once, but briefly. She was a girl from Hershey, Pennsylvania, where her maternal uncle Milton Hershey started the famous candy business. By the time she and Jack met, Hershey was a household word, a name brand, and Miriam was, in a manner of speaking in those times, a "rich girl."
They married in 1943. Jack signed a film contract with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures, but the big break came in 1947 when Jack Benny, who knew of Jack’s standup performances for the troops, chose him to be his summer replacement on radio. Jack was a hit and the sponsor moved him ABC for his own show in the fall. That didn’t work out, as he objected to their ideas for his comedy. He wanted to do something “new.” Despite his initial success, his career floundered.
In 1949, when Randy was born, he was very uncertain and nervous about his future chances. It got so bad, Miriam once recalled to me, that by the early 1950s, living in Los Angeles, Jack was deeply depressed and stuck in it. Finally one day, desperate to lift his spirits — as she was taking in the laundry off the clothesline — she got the bright idea that they should move back to New York. With her armful of freshly dried laundry she went back into the house where Jack was sitting in the kitchen and said: “Why don’t we move back East?” Jack’s immediate response was a hopeful: “D’ya think so?” as if pleading. And so they did, shortly thereafter.
|Tokyo, April, 1962: Miriam, Randy, and Jack Paar. ©Stars and Stripes.|
|Within a year, he was making appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show” (then called The Toast of the Town ). He hosted a couple of game shows, and then was signed to do The Morning Show on CBS, taking over for the departing Walter Cronkite. His presence didn’t beat out the competition (NBC’s The Today Show), but then in 1957, NBC asked him to replace Steve Allen on The Tonight Show). By 1959 it was called The Jack Paar Show, and he was the most talked about, and arguably, the most famous performer on television. He later took pride in the fact that he and the show were the subject of front-page news in the New York Times seven times. Talk shows as we know them today, all began with Jack Paar. There had been others before him but he made it the comedian’s domain.
All that detail of his life played very much into the life of Randy, the only child, the only daughter, Papa’s favorite (except for the dog Leica, whom she loved too). She was the good child, the agreeable child. Never a rebel, never a problem. However, the Randy I knew didn't always feel like the good one or the agreeable one. Papa demanded a lot. If she brought someone home whom she liked but he didn't, she heard about it sometimes instantly, and at other times bluntly enough to embarrass her enough to know never to do that again. By the time she was a very young girl, and her father was one of the most famous men in America — however briefly — she brought home friends whom she knew would be impressed with Papa. If he liked them, they were welcome to come again. If not, they couldn’t. There was another side to the matter also: if her father liked her friends and her friends like her mother and especially her father, she scored with both — friend and father. That was her ideal.
|Randy on The Jack Paar Show, 1965.|
|There was resentment about the matter, as there would be for any kid, but she was never openly rebellious. She had a rich imagination, and she solved a lot of personal issues for herself with it. When she was old enough — out of college, working in New York, with her own apartment, she made the natural break — which wasn’t easy, but necessary to her.
One day in the Spring of 1977 when I was living up in North Stamford, and she was living in the city where she was working as a law clerk for a judge, I had lunch with her in town. At that time, she had acquired a steady boyfriend, a very kind, mild-mannered man named Steve Wells. They had been dating for several months and he had met her parents. Although I hadn’t heard it from either Jack or Miriam that Randy had any “serious” plans, during lunch that day she told me she and Steve were getting married, and would I like to attend.
She said that was because she hadn't told them. Why? I asked. She hadn’t thought of it, was her vague and disingenuous reply, spoken very quietly but deliberately. I understood. This was going to be her way of making the break that we all make by the time we leave home. I suggested that her mother and father would feel terrible not to be included, since she was always their only child.
By this time it was two in the afternoon. The ceremony, as she planned it would take place five hours later in a chapel of a local church with only a best man and maid of honor, and a couple other friends in attendance. When we left the restaurant, I encouraged her to "let them at least know" what she was doing in case they "wanted" to come. They also knew I was having that lunch with her. When they found out, they would know I knew. Yet I couldn’t tell them.
An hour and a half later, back home in Connecticut, the phone rang as I was getting in the door. It was Miriam, in a state of upset because Randy had just called, and that she had invited them to attend. Miriam asked if I would go down to New York with them. Which I did.
There were seven of us at the service, including the bride and groom. I think it was in the chapel of a nearby Episcopal church — a short, Protestant ceremony. Afterwards we all walked over to "21" for dinner. It was a nice dinner and treated as a special celebration with champagne and caviar. Jack showed a great natural humility under circumstances but he was flummoxed. He was very respectful toward his daughter and his new son-in-law, as was Miriam. We had a good time, although in his nervousness, he got so drunk that he couldn’t drive home to New Canaan. The "drunk" part, while the result of having too much to drink, was mainly his emotional outlet to losing his only daughter to another man. It was painful for him.
|Jack and Randy.|
|Randy and Steve often spent the weekend with her parents in Connecticut after that, although I didn’t see them as much. The groom was not suited personality-wise to accommodate or match the wit and charm of the new father-in-law, which would have been a challenge for any new husband in that family. In a couple years' time, however, Randy and her husband moved to Greenwich to be nearer her mother and father (who had moved to Greenwich from New Canaan). And she also presented them with a grandson.
Shortly thereafter their marriage, I was making plans to sell my business and move to California to pursue a career as a writer. Jack was not at all high on my leaving. I do think that part of his feeling about it was that he liked me and had had such a "bad" experience of pursuing a career out there, that he didn't even want to imagine what it would be like for me in terms of difficulty. I had dinner with them at their house the night before I left. That night as I was leaving, he said to me, "Well kid, Hollywood's the greatest place in the world if you're a success, but it's the most terrible place of all if you're a failure." He knew me intuitively enough to know what difficulties lay ahead for my personality and way.
I know when their grandson came into their lives, Jack and Miriam were very excited, and Jack was excited to be able to have the "information" he loved to share with his grandson, and to watch that child develop. There was one problem, however. Lisa Drew, my editor on the Debbie book, who also edited a book of Jack's many years before and had kept a friendship with them, told me that Jack found Randy’s husband "boring." That was a fatal characteristic, most fatal of all for Jack and therefore Miriam too. It got to the point, understandably where Randy was very uncomfortable with the situation.
This was a terrible predicament for her, and although she never told me, it must have been deeply troubling and troublesome for several reasons, not the least of which that her parents were not respecting her most important personal choices in life. This was the context of their relationship historically, however. For her it had always been about what they wanted, and Jack was the They of the they. He did not exercise patience or understanding. It wasn't part of his temperament. He was like a child in that way. It was his habit, for example, to get up and with a word or a warning, leave the room and not return if he were bored by the company. This was ironically part of his enormous charm when it translated into performing because he was famously curious and provoked all kinds of amusing responses from his guests. But it was a terrible ordeal for a child to endure in a parent when the parent always has the upper hand and the child never rebelled. The Not Inviting her parents to her wedding, not even telling them about it beforehand, was about the only way Randy could let them know how she felt. Her resentments ran deep — although she deeply loved her father and mother too.
She knew that her job as a good daughter was accommodating — his wishes (you're an audience, too). She had played that role devotedly and affectionately at all times with him. She was probably afraid of him too, because his extreme responses to people (what better example than rejecting your child's husband) could be intimidating, no matter how unreasonable and extreme.
|A photo of Jack and Miriam Paar and their dog Leica strolling on Trinity Pass in Pound Ridge, New York, circa 1975. Taken by Randy Paar Wells.|
|Jack died in 2004, three months before his 86th birthday. He’d lived to see his adored daughter give him a grandson whom he also adored. He also lived to see her become her own kind of star in a highly respected, brilliant career as one of the top trial lawyers in New York — something he never could have achieved. Randy’s obituary made no mention of her mother Miriam, stating that she was survived only by her son. Dear Miriam would be about 90 now. I saw Randy in Michael's one day right after Jack died. I commented to her that his death must have been a brutal loss for her mother. Randy said it was very difficult, a great loss that could never be replaced.
Well, what started as a short piece turned into a tome. I was surprised by my own sorrow on learning of her sudden departure. She was a very nice woman, kind, empathic, and easy to laugh. Nice like her mother although perhaps less patient with her mother than with her father. She always worked hard at her responsibilities be they professional, academic, as a friend or a child. Her distinguished law career must have thrilled both her parents. She was at the top of her game when we last saw each other, although she was still modest and unassuming personally. What ego there was was put aside by habit, since she was so sensitive to what Ego does to get in the way of relationships with loved ones. I do deeply regret that I didn't keep up our friendship, if only because she could easily have translated that into thinking that I didn't care, or maybe even didn't like her, when none of it was true.
Randy and Steve Wells divorced this year after 35 years of marriage. So, according to the New York Times, she was survived only by her son, whom her father and mother adored.
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